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The Ghoulish Probate Courts

The ghoulish probate courts are where rapacious lawyers and corrupt judges team up to rob the dead.

This may be the biggest business in America!  

“In a rich country, the stock of wealth that turns over as people die, one by one, is staggeringly large.  In the United States, according to one estimate, some $41 trillion will pass from the dead to the living in the first half of the twenty-first century.  This figure has been disputed, and an argument rages among economists as to the exact amounts –all the way from “only” $10 trillion to the high estimate of $41 trillion.  But no matter who is right, clearly we are dealing with immense amounts of money.” (Lawrence M. Friedman, Dead Hands (Stanford Law Books, 2009, p.4).

One thing I’ve learned from my unfortunate litigation experience is that the purpose of probate courts is to enrich the “old boys club” of lawyers and judges who prey off the estates before them.   This appears to be widespread - not only in California.   The following links are just a taste . . .

California links:

Here are some links regarding other probate courts:

There is nothing new about probate court corruption. The probate courts (which handle conservatorships and trusts as well as probate estates) have a long and well-known tradition for being as corrupt as any court can get. See, for example, Norman Dacey's book "How to avoid probate" which gives some historical background and makes a scathing indictment of the probate system. Back in the 1960's Dacey was disbarred for publishing this self-help book with forms in the back (so people could set up a "Dacey" trust themselves to avoid lawyers' fees). Unfortunately, today, probate courts rob trusts as easily as they rob probate estates.

One estate-fleecing team of Judge Robert M. Letteau and his buddy Judge Ross was the subject of articles in Metropolitan News, Oct. 27, and Oct. 29, 1997. An article, entitled "Shredded Fred" (NewTimesLA 5/14/98), tells how Judge Letteau robbed the 250-million-dollar estate of art collector Fred Weisman by putting his cronies in control of the estate.

I happen to have personal experience with Judge Letteau who also robbed my grandmother's estate in 1995 (a much much smaller estate). Somehow the same probate lawyer (Andrew Gifford of Riordan & McKinzie Law Firm) appears in both these cases. The probate courts are an "old boys club" where the judges and lawyers work together to rob the public. Sounds cynical, but it's a fact.

The ghoulish corruption of the probate courts results from the fact that one of the parties to an “action” is either dead (probate) or severely incapacitated (conservatorships).  The adversarial mode of trial simply doesn’t work in these cases.  And yet, in modern times, the probate courts have been given the powers of civil courts for the purpose of adversary proceedings.

However, probate courts have historically been a unique species of court.  They were originally ecclesiastical courts in England vastly different from the other courts.  

A 1962 Marquette Law Review article traces the history of probate courts.

“Although the probate courts derive historically from the ecclesiastical courts of England, their jurisdiction is different and wider, our county courts having jurisdiction in matters in probate formerly exercised by courts of chancery and common law.”

Why doesn’t the legislature should create a procedural paradigm for probate courts where the mode of trial is less adversary and is appropriate for the types of cases presented?